Four Scarlet Pimpernel Books – Review

Baroness Emmuska Orczy Orczy. I Will Repay. 1906; Project Gutenberg, 2014. E-book.
———. The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. 1919; Project Gutenberg, 2004. E-book.
———. The Elusive Pimpernel. 1908; Project Gutenberg, 2013. E-book.
———. Lord Tony’s Wife: An Adventure of the Scarlet Pimpernel. 1917; Project Gutenberg, 2011. E-book.

They seek him here, they seek him there;
The Frenchies seek him everywhere.

Readers may be familiar with The Scarlet Pimpernel, a swashbuckling novel about an English nobleman and master of disguise who helps Frenchmen destined for the guillotine during the French Revolution to escape. I read that many years ago in high school and enjoyed it immensely. About twenty years ago I saw the 1930s film version which was also lots of fun. In the thirties they knew how to make swashbucklers—Robin Hood, Captain Blood—Sorry, but the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, except maybe the first, are really science fiction or fantasy.

Even back in high school I had a vague impression that Baroness Orczy had written a sequel or two. I was inspired recently to read some Scarlet Pimpernel stories, so I checked on my source of pre-1924 classics, Project Gutenberg. There I saw a substantial list, and Wikipedia listed them in order of publication and in historical chronology. Many were written after 1924, so I suppose non-Americans can check those out at Project Gutenberg Australia. A list follows this review if WordPress lets me use html tables.

I read the above books in the order listed. One might call it a binge, except that the books are quick reads. I have not had such relatively mindless fun reading books in a while (maybe since a Gordon Korman book). These books are a hoot.

I Will Repay
establishes a continuing conflict between Committee of Public Safety officer Citizen Chauvelin and the Pimpernel. Indeed, the Scarlet Pimpernel becomes Chauvelin’s nemesis. In I Will Repay Chauvelin hatches a plan to trap the Pimpernel, but I am not giving away much of the plot by saying that his plan is thwarted.

One could say that Chauvelin is Wile E. Coyote to the Pimpernel’s Roadrunner. Like the Coyote, the reader never quite sympathizes with Chauvelin. He is a friend of Robespierre and devastated when Marat is killed. He is ruthless and self-serving. However, he had been an ambassador to England before the Revolution and traveled in the same circles as Sir Percy Blakeney. Blakeney is the Pimpernel’s alter ego. What adds to the intrigue of many of these stories is that in I Will Repay Chauvelin identifies the Pimpernel as Blakeney. In other words, he is not like Lois Lane who seems to have never figured out that Clark Kent is Superman. That also, of course, heightens the tension.

(It has been noted by many that The Scarlet Pimpernel may have inspired the Superman-style superhero with an alter ego like the Shadow or the Phantom, both of whom predated Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne.)

The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel is a set of short stories or episodes each involving an escape from France assisted by the Pimpernel or one of his associates. There are somewhere around a dozen friends of Sir Percy who have joined him in his adventures. These tales reminded me a lot of the Sherlock Holmes stories in style and effect. The difference is that instead of solving a mystery as Holmes does, the Pimpernel creates mystery and distraction and disguise to outwit his adversaries.

Some of these stories like The Elusive Pimpernel novel remind us that the Revolution did not only go after selfish aristocrats but also that many middle and lower class workers were victims as well. I was reminded of the seamstress who gets executed along with Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. The Pimpernel does not limit his aid to aristocrats.

Like the Holmes stories, some were better than others. A few had plots similar to other stories in the series, but for the most part they were fresh enough.

The Elusive Pimpernel may have been the tensest of the four books. Here most of the victims are not aristocrats but people who worked for aristocrats and were still faithful to the Catholic Church. We are reminded, too, of Merlin’s law, what Dickens called the law of the suspected: “that every man, woman or child, who was suspected by the Republic of being a traitor was a traitor in fact.” (1597-1598). This law was originally proposed by a deputy named Philippe-Antoine Merlin, so Orczy often calls it Merlin’s Law. This was not unlike Article 58 in the Soviet Union which proscribed “anti-Soviet behavior,” which in reality meant nearly anything if they wanted to get you.

Chauvelin here gets wind that the Pimpernel is in town. He has his victims placed in the most secure cells in the most secure prison until they can be put on trial. At the same time, he hopes to trap the Pimpernel and his allies. Great fun!

Lord Tony’s Wife concerns Blakeney’s friend and Pimpernel League member Sir Anthony Dewhurst. Dewhurst has fallen in love with a French emigrée, and the feeling is mutual. However, Blakeney (who disguises himself even in England) finds out that her father, the Duc de Kernogan, wants her to marry someone else. The reader knows that the “someone else” is really the duke’s sworn enemy, but the duke is too inattentive to realize it.

While we do sympathize with Lord Tony and his new bride, we also understand that like the Marquis de St. Evrémonde in A Tale of Two Cities, the duke here is at best careless and at worst evil himself. Orczy does remind us that there is a reason why the French Revolution began in the first place.

Lord Tony’s Wife is mostly set in Nantes. The political leader in Nantes is extraordinarily cruel. Jean-Baptiste Carrier was frustrated at the slowness of executions using the guillotine. He instituted the noyades (“drownings”) where fifty or more people roped to each other were placed on a specially constructed barge. Plugs would be pulled when the barge was in a deep part of the Loire River to sink the barge and drown all its passengers. He also instituted what he called Republican Marriages, where a sentenced man and woman would be tied together and weighted and tossed into the river. Thousands “slept with the fishes” in Nantes.

While the main characters in the Pimpernel stories are fictional, there are people appearing in the story like Robespierre, Carrier, and the Prince of Wales who are historical figures. There actually was an ambassador to England named Chauvelin, a marquis who joined the Revolution and survived. While Orczy seems to indicate that the Chauvelin in her stories and novels is different (e.g., he has a different first name), there are some career similarities with the real Ambassador Chauvelin.

While the historical setting is important in all the Pimpernel stories, we do not read them primarily for the history. We read them for the adventure. They are great entertainment.

Book Title Setting Notes & Publication Date
The Laughing Cavalier January 1623 1913
The First Sir Percy March 1624 1920
The Scarlet Pimpernel September–October 1792 1905
Sir Percy Leads the Band January 1793 1936
The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel July 1793 Short stories. 1919
I Will Repay August–September 1793 1906
The Elusive Pimpernel September–October 1793 1908
Lord Tony’s Wife November–December 1793 1917
The Way of the Scarlet Pimpernel late 1793 Concurrent with preceding 2 or 3 novels. 1933
Eldorado January 1794 Unclear whether before, after, or concurrent with Mam’zelle Guillotine. 1913
Mam’zelle Guillotine January 1794 Unclear whether before, after, or concurrent with Eldorado. 1940
Sir Percy Hits Back May–June 1794 1927
Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel 1794? Exact dates unclear. Short stories. 1929
The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel April 1794 Seems to have happened later than dates indicate. 1922
A Child of the Revolution July 1794 1932
Pimpernel and Rosemary 1917–1924 1924

Note: Books with publication dates before 1924 are available from Project Gutenberg. Those with dates after 1923 are available from Project Gutenberg Australia. The first two titles are about Blakeney’s ancestors. The last one concerns his descendants. The reference is a Kindle E-book position, not page numbers.

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